'Teacher stress and exam pressure: why I blame Michael Gove for the mental heath crisis in schools'

18th January 2016 at 18:02
michael gove
But things are looking up with the appointment of his successor Nicky Morgan, writes the Department for Education’s mental health champion

Unless you’ve been living in isolation on the Moon like the man in the John Lewis ad, you will have heard the statistic that "one in four people will experience a mental illness this year". It’s quoted endlessly, most usually in an effort to "reduce stigma".

If you’re anything like the 16-year-old me, unless you’ve already experienced mental illness or you know someone who has, hearing that fact will have the opposite effect to the one it intends. You’ll reason that, statistically, you’re still far more likely to be in the three-quarters of people who won’t become mentally ill this year. You’ll conjure up images of the "one in four", who walk among us looking like "normal" people, but with a hidden secret. You’ll conclude that mental health simply isn’t relevant to you, and do nothing to prepare for an eventuality when it is. In short, framing mental health according to statistics involving diagnosed mental illnesses couldn’t be more stigmatising if it tried.

If you are reading this, the chances are you have a brain. Being in possession of a brain means that you, reader, have a "mental health" in just the same way that anyone with a body has a level of physical fitness. Unless you are a cyborg, throughout your life how mentally "well" you feel will be subject to a number of internal and external factors. You will, at various points, feel rejected, heartbroken, stressed, bereaved, overwhelmed and endangered. This is entirely normal.

Doesn’t it make sense, then, that we create a society with a built-in network of support for those times when each of us will feel mentally unwell? And since each human being is unique, and promotion of good mental health comes in many guises, shouldn’t that network consist of a number of different components – access to talking therapies; someone nearby trained in mental health first aid; the ability to express yourself through sport, arts or music; family, friends and colleagues who have taken the time to educate themselves a little; a class or lecture which will give us a different perspective; an understanding of exercises and activities which will help us process our feelings; and a lifestyle which actually gives us time to practice them?

Apparently not. More than once in recent months I have criticised former education secretary Michael Gove in his previous role as education secretary. This isn’t the first time I’ve done that, of course. Whilst he was in office you could barely shut me up about him. His absolute refusal to acknowledge the importance of wellbeing in young people and the direct impact it has on academic performance irritated me something chronic.

At the time, Gove-o-philes have showed up in various online forums to attack me on a deeply personal basis, drawing attention to the fact that my degree is "only" from the University of Wales (and therefore I am "uneducated"), that I dress "inappropriately" and that "my mouth is too big for my face" (something I can only assume they meant both metaphorically and literally). Ironically, such criticism only served to strengthen my belief that young people were being judged and prevented from reaching their potential on the most spurious and irrelevant of reasons under Gove’s reign.

This time, however, Goveites pulled out the big guns, suggesting that my mental health recommendations aren’t "peer reviewed". (They are. I do little but consult with a vast range of mental health experts and seek to means-test their recommendations in schools). And they suggested that my thinking is "lazy". Rather than attempting to legislate for (perfectly normal) fluctuations in mental health, they suggested, I should instead attempt to get to the root of the problem and stamp out mental illness once and for all in young people.

Now, I’m not for one second suggesting that there aren’t a range of root causes contributing to increased instances of mental illness in young people… But as the vast majority of these are as a direct result of policy implemented by Gove and his colleagues in government (increased stress on teachers, reduction in family time, increased poverty, more exam stress, etc) you’d think his supporters would steer clear of drawing attention to them.

Yet these comments are even more telling – they show that Gove’s people would prefer a society where fluctuations in mental health didn’t exist, where everyone is 100 per cent happy 100 per cent of the time, so that there is no need for any kind of (what they referred to as) "sticking plaster" measures in schools. Which is not only completely unrealistic but also dangerously close to emotional fascism. [Author looks behind self to check for 1984-style CCTV camera].

Last year, I wrote about a friend of the Self-Esteem Team, James ‘Mabs’ Mabbett, who killed himself aged 24. His death taught us that often the people we should be most worried about are those who give no indication whatsoever that they are struggling. Mabs’ life and death would not be logged in official records as a "mental illness" issue. He never sought help for depression and therefore never received a diagnosis. If only he had lived in a world where peaks and troughs in mental wellbeing were considered the most natural thing and there was therefore no stigma attached to seeking support as soon as the troughs manifested themselves.

In envisioning a world where young people never exhibit any signs of emotional distress and therefore providing mental health support in schools is "lazy thinking", Gove-supporters would have ensured there was more stigma than ever before. So thank goodness we now have an education secretary who has prioritised mental health and has sought to understand the issues better by calling on the advice of people like me; people who might have been opposed to the policies of her predecessor and certainly don’t identify as Tory, but who share the common aim of helping young people reach their potential by doing everything we can to create a culture within education that promotes their wellbeing.

Here is an education secretary I can get behind.

Natasha Devon is the Department for Education’s mental health champion. She tweets at @natashadevonMBE

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